School support staff warn ‘big bang’ return to school is a safety risk

Nearly three in four school support staff in the East of England have been anxious about the return to classrooms this week, with many fearing measures to keep them safe are inadequate, according to a survey published today by UNISON.

The findings provide a snapshot of the concerns of staff as schools in England reopen to all pupils. Nearly 500 teaching assistants, cleaners, technicians, librarians, receptionists and catering staff took part in the poll between 26 February and 8 March.

Major worries include the absence of adequate protective kit, poor social distancing and a lack of safety assessments to measure the threat staff face, especially given new, more transmissible Covid variants, according to the survey.

One in three (30%) were worried school ventilation systems – crucial to combat airborne transmission of the virus – aren’t up to the job. Nearly two-fifths (38%) hadn’t seen their school’s risk assessment or received an individual safety check, the survey shows.

Support staff are uniquely vulnerable to a Covid outbreak in schools, says UNISON. They tend to be older, are more likely to be Black and have underlying health conditions than the generally younger teaching population.

These factors greatly increase their risk of being hospitalised and dying should they catch the virus, the union warns. This is driving their fear of returning to school and is behind the desire to be offered the vaccine early.

The overwhelming majority (88%) think school workers should be given priority access to the jab to keep them safe and ensure schools remain open. But only three in ten (30%) have had the vaccine so far, despite two-fifths (39%) being in high-risk groups and 3% so vulnerable they’re shielding.

The vast majority think the ‘big bang’ reopening of schools was a mistake, with almost four-fifths (79%) favouring a phased or staggered return.

More than half (53%) backed the use of year group rotas to free up space for proper social distancing, and three-fifths (60%) supported staff and pupils wearing face covering in corridors, classrooms and offices, UNISON says.

Address the fears

UNISON Eastern schools lead Tracey Sparkes said: “Children need to be back in school, but the justifiable fears of support staff need to be heard and addressed too.

“It’s shocking that a third still haven’t had a risk assessment and simple safety measures, such as adopting a rota system to help social distancing, have been ruled out by ministers.

“The government needs to take account of the specific vulnerabilities of support staff and encourage schools to conduct detailed individual risk assessments to identify those at increased risk.

“Clinically vulnerable workers must be allowed to work from home until the virus risk is reduced or until they’re vaccinated.

“Untold damage will be done if ministers don’t put education and safety first and roll out the vaccine to all school staff.”

UNISON carried out the survey from 26 February to 8 March 2021. The findings are based on 476 responses from school support staff working in nurseries/early years settings (6%), primary schools (49%), secondary schools (37%), special schools (7%) and pupil referral units (2%).

Roles covered include teaching/classroom/learning assistant (48%), administrators (7%) and special educational needs assistants (6%).

UNISON Eastern schools resources